What is Shadow Work?
For many cultural and some biological reasons, we (in the Western world, at least) view darkness as bad and light as good. After all, humans are not well adapted to survival in the dark, and some of our most important technological advances have helped illuminate our world. Shadows are likewise frightening because they’re the darkness created by our source of light. When everything’s dark already, there’s no point in identifying shadows, but when there is light, shadows can seem like evidence of one’s failure to illuminate or, more relevant to this discussion, enlighten.
Let me serve as my own bad-pun spoiler here: shadow work can be very enlightening.
You’ll often hear or see the phrase “light worker” and “light work” when looking into intuitive work, new age spirituality, and alternative healing. There’s a desire to tap into the “light” of angels or of bright sapphire energy from vortexes and from our chakras. All of that is totally gorgeous, and it’s incredibly valuable. So often I find people who need to see the light in this world because they feel beaten down, weary, depressed, and just so full of doubt and self-loathing. Light work can help lift people’s spirits, and I love that. But total positivity and hiding anything that doesn’t lift us up is a very dangerous game, much more dangerous than a little bit of work in the shadows. As with so much in life, moderation is key.
I can hear people asking, “What’s the value in working outside of the light?” and “Is it evil?” I get where they’re coming from: shadow work sounds an awful lot like something a wicked witch would do on a moonless night before fire and brimstone signaled the rise of a summoned entity. Shadow work isn’t like that, at least not what I mean by the term. When I talk about working with shadows, I mean working with the parts of ourselves that have escaped the light. By focusing on what’s visible (what’s in the light), we lose sight of the importance of what we either can’t see or what we choose to leave hidden in the dark, hoping no one else sees it either. It can be scary to work with the darker parts of ourselves, but if done properly, it can be so rewarding.
There’s an understanding, and even some research, to suggest that focusing on what we do well makes us happier and more successful than trying to focus on things that we don’t do well. I can certainly understand why that would be true in work and in situations that we can control fairly easily. But if there’s anything I’ve learned from life, it’s that you can’t control it. And when you can’t control it, you’re going to end up in situations where your strengths aren’t going to help you. If you have never worked on your weaknesses—or if you don’t even know what your weaknesses are and why they’re not strengths—then you could find yourself in a position of virtual helplessness. I’m someone who wants to help people be their best selves, so you can bet that I want to help you work on those weaknesses.
As an aside, I’m a physical coach as well as a personal/metaphysical coach, and my preferred method of exercise (CrossFit) is one in which you learn how to complete all sorts of movements under varying conditions so that you are able to function in just about any setting that would demand an intense physical response. What that means is that you’ll never be the fastest runner or the strongest weightlifter or the most coordinated gymnast, but in exchange for not specializing in your strengths (or weaknesses), you’ve received solid all-around development, so you’ll be more likely to help yourself or someone else out of a difficult situation when it occurs outside of the very specialized environment of your preferred, strengths-based activity.
It’s great to focus on the positive because feeling good about what you’re doing helps you build confidence in yourself, and with self-confidence you can do almost anything, but that will eventually land you in trouble, and if you have no awareness of your weaknesses then your self-confidence may just become arrogance, and that won’t get you everywhere you want to go. By doing shadow work, you’re not focusing on only weaknesses and bad parts of yourself; you’re learning more about yourself as a whole person, including where the shadows and light interact. Shadows are, after all, created by the interplay of light and an obstacle. If you remove the obstacle, then what was shaded becomes illuminated. And if you can’t or don’t want to remove that obstacle—and there are sometimes good reasons not to—then it’s useful to reflect your light inward and around that obstacle so that you at least can understand what’s hidden back there.
Because of how important this work is to me, I have a specific tarot reading dedicated to this effort to reflect light back onto your shadows and work on the truths that you’ve hidden away. You can find the available reading “Shadow Work” listed under my Common Concern spreads, or you can just find it for purchase here.
And because shadow work is sometimes conflated with “dark work” and “dark work” is sometimes tied to “black magic,” I want to make perfectly clear that nothing in the shadow work I do is any more inherently magical than a session with a psychoanalyst. (And as a reminder, I’m not a qualified mental health practitioner.) It might be more spiritual if you’re entering into shadow work with a spiritual purpose or if you’re using spiritual tools, as the tarot is for some people, but it doesn’t even have to be that. And to be super duper clear, even though I consider myself a “shadow worker” in the way that many of my friends are “light workers,” I do not do “black magic,” and I will definitely not put a curse (or spell) on someone for you.